Sunday marked the beginning of “Sunshine Week,” a week in which the nation focuses its attention on government openness. The “Week” makes it clear that it is important to maintain an open government, in order to ensure the proper relationship between public officials and the citizens they are pledged to serve.
The critical tool for holding policymakers accountable, as well as ensuring that the public is educated on policymaking, is the Freedom of Information Law. The Law operates on one basic concept – that government information should be accessible to the public. Without a strong open access law, it is virtually impossible for the public to adequately participate in, and monitor, governmental decision making.
Weaker laws can result in public officials losing their way. It was one year ago, that the Cuomo Administration was called out for its policy of requiring the deletion of state governmental emails after 90 days.
At first, the governor’s office argued that the policy was simply due to technological limitations. When faced with the fact that the federal government – which has far more emails than New York – now has a seven year retention policy, the justification has changed.
But the Administration did not back off and the policy went into place. Later last year, the governor vetoed two bills that were designed to make it easier for the public to get access to government records.
One bill would have required that state agencies not drag their feet on disclosing information to the public; another raised the likelihood of penalties if the agencies wrongfully denied the public access to public information.
Both proposals were advanced by the state agency responsible for ensuring government openness – the Committee on Open Government. Both proposals were part of the agency’s annual analysis examining what should be done to improve governmental accountability.
Both bills passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. But both were vetoed by the governor.
Why? The governor argued that there were technical defects in the bills. The governor followed up with an executive order requiring that state agencies respond more quickly to FOIL requests. Unfortunately, the governor’s executive order does nothing to ensure openness by local governments (also covered by FOIL) and does nothing to punish state agencies that ignore the FOIL.
The governor vetoed those bills saying that he would not agree to any legislation that did not comprehensively overhaul the state’s Freedom of Information Law. In short, he was saying that it was his way or there was no way.
This session the governor proposed legislation that he said would comprehensively improve public access to its own government. Last week, a coalition of civic groups sent a letter to the governor and the legislative leaders identifying instances in which the governor’s proposed legislation would weaken the Freedom of Information Law, not strengthen it.
For example, the bill makes it harder for citizens to obtain attorneys fees in the event that they are successful in taking a state agency to court for failing to appropriately disclose public records.
Pledging to make New York’s notoriously secretive state government more open has become a staple of promises by candidates for public office. In his 2010 campaign book, “Clean Up Albany,” then-candidate Andrew Cuomo pledged “to make the State government the most transparent and accountable in history.”
It turns out that that pledge remains unfulfilled. Let’s hope that this “Sunshine Week” stimulates Albany’s leaders to throw open the windows of state government, not keep the curtains closed.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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